Is University Elitism Making a Comeback?

In the week that the University of Cambridge has announced that it is considering plans to reintroduce a universal entry test, Impact discusses the validity of A Level results in the modern world of higher education. The academics at Cambridge who are considering the move could potentially be viewed as misguidedly striving to recapture an age of elitism; alternatively they could be rightly attempting to preserve the prestige of university.

The issue seems to stem from the fact that more and more students are achieving the top grades at A Level. In 2015, 98.1% of students achieved a pass grade (E or above), with 25.9% achieving the top end grades of A or A*. In contrast to this, in 2002, 94.3% of students achieved an E grade or above, but only 20.7% obtained an A grade. To put this into a wider context, in 1970, only 8.9% of A Level students achieved an A grade.

With higher grades, of course, come greater ambitions. With increased social and geographical mobility, more and more students are leaving their hometowns behind and applying for places at prestigious universities up and down the country. This, of course, is a purely positive thing as a student’s social background is no longer a determining factor in whether or not they can go on to higher education. Yet for those who work in admissions at some of the country’s top institutions, selecting the truly outstanding candidates is becoming increasingly difficult.

Barbara Sahakian, a professor of experimental psychiatry at Cambridge, spoke to the Sunday Times about the university’s reconsideration of the entry exam, which would include a language aptitude test and a 45 minute essay among other things. She suggested that the more talented students are no longer standing out as much as they did: “There are a lot of students getting very high grades but not all of them would have got those grades in the past, so it is hard to discriminate between candidates”. The entry test is seemingly a way of selecting the very best students from an ever-larger choice.

“With higher grades, of course, come greater ambitions”

Yet if this move goes ahead, it threatens to discourage students from applying to Cambridge at all. In an age where universities are living up to their name and are indeed becoming more universal, reintroducing something that suggests a more elitist nature would arguably be a step backwards. It can be argued that students have done extremely well to achieve top-end grades in the first place, so why should they face extra hurdles which may not even be directly related to the degree they want to study?

Of course, the University of Cambridge is already considered more ‘elite’ than most universities due to its historic prestige, and whatever the outcome of the entry exam discussions, it will inevitably remain so. Like any university, it also only has a certain number of places. As A Level results get better and better, there are more and more students competing for those places. What universities must consider is how to select students without resorting to off-putting, old-fashioned methods.


Information from the Telegraph and BBC News.

Rachel Harrison

Image: llee_wu via Flickr.

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